As India’s Lethal Covid Wave Neared, Politics Overrode Science

NEW DELHI — The forecast was mathematically based, government-approved and deeply, tragically wrong.

In September 2020, eight months before a deadly Covid-19 second wave struck India, government-appointed scientists downplayed the possibility of a new outbreak. Previous infections and early lockdown efforts had tamed the spread, the scientists wrote in a study that was widely covered by the Indian news media after it was released last year.

The results dovetailed neatly with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two main goals: restart India’s stricken economy and kick off campaigning for his party in state elections that coming spring. But Anup Agarwal, a physician then working for India’s top science agency, which reviewed and published the study, worried that its conclusions would lull the country into a false sense of security.

Dr. Agarwal took his concerns to the agency’s top official in October. The response: He and another concerned scientist were reprimanded, he said.

In the wake of the devastating second wave, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, many in India are asking how Mr. Modi’s government missed the warning signs. Part of the answer, according to current and former government researchers and documents reviewed by The New York Times, is that senior officials forced scientists at elite institutions to downplay the threat to prioritize Mr. Modi’s political goals.

“Science is being used as a political weapon to forward the government narrative rather than help people,” said Dr. Agarwal, 32.

Senior officials at Dr. Agarwal’s agency — called the Indian Council of Medical Research, or I.C.M.R. — suppressed data showing the risks, according to the researchers and documents. They pressured scientists to withdraw another study that called the government’s efforts into question, the researchers said, and distanced the agency from a third study that foresaw a second wave.

Agency scientists interviewed by The Times described a culture of silence. Midlevel researchers worried that they would be passed over for promotions and other opportunities if they questioned superiors, they said.

“Science thrives in an environment where you can openly question evidence and discuss it dispassionately and objectively,” said Shahid Jameel, one of India’s top virologists and a former government adviser, who has been critical of the agency.

“That, sadly, at so many levels, has been missing,” he said.

The science agency declined to answer detailed questions. In a statement, it said it was a “premier research organization” that had helped to expand India’s testing capacity. India’s health ministry, which oversees the agency, did not respond to requests for comment.

India is hardly the first country where virus science has become politicized. The United States remains far short of taming the disease as politicians and anti-vaccine activists, fueled by disinformation and credulous media, challenge the scientific consensus on vaccines and wearing masks. The Chinese government has tried to obscure the outbreak’s origin, while vaccine skeptics have won audiences from Russia to Spain to Tanzania.

India, a vast country with an underfunded health care system, would have struggled to contain the second wave no matter what. A more contagious new variant fueled the spread. People had stopped wearing masks and socially distancing.

“Prime Minister Modi has never, ever said to lower the guard,” said Vijay Chauthaiwale, a member of Mr. Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party.

Still, the government contributed to complacency. Mr. Modi boasted in January, just months before the devastating second wave hit, that India had “saved humanity from a big disaster.” Harsh Vardhan, then the health minister, said in March that the country was “in the endgame of Covid-19.” (Amid criticism over the government’s response, Dr. Vardhan stepped down in July.)

The I.C.M.R., which conducts and reviews research for the government, played a major role in shaping perceptions. India has not released granular data on the virus’s spread, hampering the ability of scientists to study it. In that vacuum, the agency offered projections that often steered debate.

Politics began to influence the agency’s approach early last year, according to scientists familiar with its deliberations.

In April 2020, in the midst of a nationwide lockdown ordered by Mr. Modi, the government blamed an early outbreak on an Islamic gathering, spurring attacks against Muslims by some Hindu nationalists, who provide the core of the prime minister’s support.

Amid that anger, some officials within the science agency said the gathering had undermined containment efforts. The gathering “has undone the benefits of lockdown,” said one news outlet, citing an agency source. Raman Gangakhedkar, then its chief scientist, in an interview singled out the gathering as an “unexpected surprise.”

In an interview with The Times, Dr. Gangakhedkar said that he had expressed “anguish” over the government’s statements targeting Muslims but said the science agency’s director general, Balram Bhargava, told him that the matter should not concern him. Dr. Bhargava did not respond to requests for comment.

The lockdown did severe economic damage. Once it ebbed, Mr. Modi moved to rekindle the economy and start election campaigning — and government scientists, researchers within the agency said, helped pave the way.

In June 2020, a study commissioned by the agency concluded that Mr. Modi’s lockdown had slowed but would not stop the virus’s spread. Within days, the authors withdrew it. The agency, saying the study’s modeling had not been peer-reviewed, wrote in a tweet that it “does not reflect the official position of I.C.M.R.”

One of the study’s authors, along with a scientist familiar with it, said the authors had withdrawn it amid pressure from the agency’s leaders, who questioned its findings and complained that it had been published before they had reviewed it. The move was unusual, the scientists said, adding that the agency’s leadership would typically adjust problematic language rather than demand a paper be withdrawn.

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In July 2020, Dr. Bhargava issued two directives to agency scientists that his internal critics saw as politically motivated.

The first called on scientists at a number of institutions to help approve, in just six weeks, a coronavirus vaccine developed by Indian scientists. In a memo dated July 2 and reviewed by The Times, Dr. Bhargava said the agency aimed to approve the vaccine by Aug. 15, India’s Independence Day, an event at which Mr. Modi frequently urges the country toward greater self-reliance. “Kindly note that noncompliance will be viewed very seriously,” the directive read.

The request alarmed agency scientists. Regulators in other countries were still months away from approving their own vaccines. The agency’s top leaders backed off once the timetable became public. (The vaccine was approved by the Indian authorities months later, in January.)

Dr. Bhargava’s second directive, issued in late July 2020, forced scientists to withhold data that suggested the virus was still spreading in 10 cities, according to emails and scientists familiar with the work.

The data came from the agency’s serological studies, which tracked the disease based on antibodies in blood samples. The data showed high infection rates in some neighborhoods, including in Delhi and Mumbai, despite containment efforts. In a July 25 email reviewed by The Times, Dr. Bhargava told the scientists that “I have not got approval” to publish the data.

Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.

    • Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
    • Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
    • College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
    • Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.  
    • Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
    • New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement does not begin until Sept. 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
    • At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.

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